Three Years After Deadly Deutsche Bank Fire, Still No Real Justice

The Village Voice - August 20, 2010

by Gavin Aronsen

In the three years since a fire at the former Deutsche Bank building claimed the lives of firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino, not much has changed in the way of culpability for the negligence that led to their deaths.

Standing near the sanctuary exit in the Shrine Church of St. Anthony of Padua following a brief memorial service today marking the fire's third anniversary, Graffagnino's father, Joseph Graffagnino, Sr., spoke to the Voice.

"Normally the district attorney would have arrested a hundred people and each one would have 300 charges against them," he said.

Instead, just three building supervisors - Mitchel Alvo, Salvatore DePaola and Jeffrey Melofchik - and the John Galt Corporation were indicted on charges of manslaughter in the second degree, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment in December 2008, more than a year after the fire.

Last month, lawyers for the three men asked that the charges be dropped on the grounds that the city had admitted some fault for its mismanaged oversight. The men and John Galt will go on trial October 21.

Also last month, the elder Graffagnino met with the Manhattan district attorney's office. He said it "had requested that our family show up in support" of the prosecution "when they stand in front of the judge." Graffagnino refused the offer, he said, "because we don't have any faith that the DA can prosecute it the way we feel it should be prosecuted."

The late Graffagnino's widow, Linda Graffagnino, has similar sentiments. The three men, she said, "are just low on the totem pole" and "scapegoats for higher and bigger corporations that control what really went on."

She called the city's response "very slow," adding, "I mean, Deutsche Bank is still there. The building is still standing."

There have, however, been small signs of progress in the wake of unrequited wrongs.

The Centers for Disease Control's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued an August 5 report on the fire. It made no heavy accusations but laid out a list of safety precautions for fire departments, equipment manufacturers and municipalities to follow in the interest of preventing future tragedies.

Graffagnino Sr. seemed encouraged by the report.

He also expressed some satisfaction with a handful of laws passed since his son's death to strengthen the city's building and fire codes, as well as a bill signed by Governor Paterson on July 31 intended to create a joint city-state task force that would improve the building inspections process.

"I think it's a definite positive step," he said of the legislation. "It's a shame that murders have to happen before people get off their asses to do anything about it, but we keep trying."